Throughout history, rulers and conquerors have left their mark on the world with legacies that remain intact to this day. Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 BC) was only thirty-two years of age when he died. But in his short and extraordinary life, he ruled an empire that changed world history. In mainstream culture, he is known as Alexander the Great and in his era, the mention of his name evoked fear across territories threatened by the Macedonian empire. Yet for all of his power and accomplishments, he died intestate, having failed to clarify his wishes as he faced death. Whether it was due to procrastination, sickness or paranoia is lost to history. But what we do know is that following his death, the interactions between his former generals became dark and deadly. And before the violence was over, multiple participants had been dispatched to Hades. Strangely, there is no official cause of death for the legendary ruler. There are rumors of possible poisoning or a deadly illness such as typhoid, but the different accounts of his final days add more confusion to the mystery. Author David Grant dissects the known diaries of events that purport to contain the truth about Alexander’s death in an effort to resolve the matter.
Readers without prior knowledge of Alexander’s life may find value in first watching a documentary about him or reading articles online. I say this because in the wake of his death, key figures once under his command take on various roles and each having their own agenda. There are names in the book that will stand out easily such as Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Cleopatra (357-308 BC). But they play minor roles in the story which focuses heavily on the former generals and their actions. As I read, I found keeping track of the figures slightly challenging as the story moves from place to place. However, I recommend getting familiar with each character as you make your way through the discussion. Essentially, two major factions appear after Alexander’s death, one side led by Perdiccas (356-321) and Eumenes (362-313 BC) who are loyal of Alexander’s line of success and the other by Meleager (d. 323 BC), Antigonus I Monophthalmus (382-301 BC), and Antipater (397-319 BC) who see the power vacuum as a chance to consolidate power. Added to the mix are the roles and rights as heirs of Alexander’s sons Alexander IV from wife Roxana (340-310 BC) and Heracles (327 -309 BC) from wife Barsine (363-309 BC). The story is deeply intricate with alliances and double-crosses, and the author did an exceptional job of researching the events and composing this account that examines the known facts. But complicating the task are the various accounts of Alexander’s death.
The name of Eumenes will be seared into reader’s minds for multiple reasons. He becomes a prominent figure in the book due to his account of how Alexander died. His explanation is not beyond suspicion, and historians have questioned its authenticity. Grant also questions its accuracy and provides compelling reasons why it cannot be trusted entirely as the definitive account of the Alexander’s end days. Despite its questionable contents, Eumenes was a witness to Alexander’s final days and would have included truths in his account. They may stand in contrast to the story presented by the Royal Diaries which found subscribers in historians Arrian of Nicomedia (86-160 AD) and Plutarch (46-119 AD). The Royal Diaries, sometimes referred to the Journal, are accepted as authentic. But with other aspect of Alexander’s final days and the deadly power struggles that ensued, questions remain about the source material used to explain those events. And as the author explains in the book’s conclusion, the authenticity of any alleged “wills” is subject to scrutiny due to events that transpired and their participants. But that examination should not take away from the facts that are known and other truths we may never know.
Between 322 and 275 BC, Alexander’s former generals engaged in the Wars of the Diadochi, a conflict that spanned several decades and led to the collapse of Alexander’s empire. The author refers to them, when necessary, but the book is not a discussion of the multiple wars. However, they are relevant to the story as they show the deception and greed to be found in the wake of Alexander’s death. The plots are intricate and some sections might need to be revisited for clarification, but the venom between parties was intense and everyone seemed to have a role to play including Alexander’s mother Olympias (375-316 BC) who was determined to maintain the line of succession. Grant pulls no punches and brings the past to life as enemies plot ways to have each other killed. The amount of blood spilled during these wars is unimaginable. Olympias proves to be a formidable threat and she has her own story in the book and her fate becomes tied to the actions of Antipater’s son Cassander (355-297 BC). This is one part of the story that reaffirms the savagery of the ancient world. The tragic truth is that the wars were both deadly and costly, and erased any chance for Alexander’s line of succession to continue.
This book is not light reading by any means but it also an invaluable tool when examining Alexander’s demise. There are no happy endings in the story. And whether the cause was typhoid fever or poison, Alexander’s death at the age of thirty-two remains one of history’s biggest conspiracies. But whether there actually was a conspiracy is still unsolved. Voltaire (1694-1778) once said, “to the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth”. Grant seeks the truth about Alexander’s will and so do we. I can say that reading the book resulted in me further researching the historical figures. And having done so makes the story easier to digest. If you love ancient Greek history, this book is must read.